Picking a health insurance plan is never easy, and it’s likely to be even more difficult during this year’s open enrollment period (Nov. 1 to Dec. 15). That’s because premiums (and subsidies) have changed significantly, and in many states so has the mix of insurance companies that participate in the Affordable Care Act.
On top of that, this year the federal government slashed funding for the groups that can help you complete your ACA application.
But you can still find the help you need if you know where to look. Try these four strategies to get the best health insurance deal for you.
1. Look online for enrollment assisters near you
Start by entering your ZIP code in the Local Help page on Healthcare.gov. If you live in one of the 39 states that use this site as their exchange, you’ll see a list of every source of help available in your area. If your state runs its own exchange, you’ll see a link to click to your state’s site, where you should look for a link to enrollment assistance.
2. Ask for one-on-one help if you get hung up on the paperwork
If you are among the majority of consumers who qualify for financial help, applying for coverage on an exchange can get a little complicated. It’s not unlike filling out your income tax return — in advance. You’ll need detailed financial projections. Unconventional family situations can add another degree of difficulty. But don’t give up. Using a navigator or enrollment assister is free, and he or she can guide you through the process expertly, whether in person or by phone.
3. Consider an agent or broker
Navigators and enrollment assisters aren’t allowed to recommend one plan over another. That’s not the case with insurance agents and brokers, who might be your best bet if you’re wondering which specific plan makes the most financial sense for you.
The “Local Help” search results include lists of certified agents and brokers, and so do those of most of the state-run marketplaces. Their services are free to you, although they most likely get a commission from whatever insurer you end up with. Bear in mind, though, that some agents and brokers are affiliated with specific carriers. If multiple carriers participate in your local exchange, try to find an independent agent or broker who can help you look at all of them.
4. Don’t wait until the last minute
With cutbacks in navigator programs on top of this year’s shortened open enrollment window, assisters and phone help lines are likely to be overloaded as the Dec. 15 deadline approaches. Start looking for help as soon as possible, preferably today.
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Nancy Metcalf is an award-winning independent journalist specializing in health topics. A senior writer and editor for Consumer Reports for more than 25 years, she is a nationally recognized expert on health insurance and health reform.